Labor Day demonstration protests unequal treatment of workers

“Hey Hey! Ho Ho! Vandy greed has got to go!”

Marching from Library Lawn through Rand Dining Hall to the front steps of Kirkland Hall, a group of nearly 50 students chanted and waved banners to show their support for Vanderbilt campus dining workers in a Labor Day demonstration Sept. 5.

Students from various social justice organizations on campus, including Vanderbilt Food Justice and Vanderbilt Students of Nonviolence, as well as other student supporters, read out their demands on the front steps of an empty-for-Labor-Day Kirkland Hall.

Protesters demanded that union employees receive the same nearly $2 wage increases that non-union workers will receive beginning October 1. The students also demanded the reinstallation of paid holiday time for union workers, the prioritization of campus dining workers within the university system during the summer, and the creation and maintenance of summer job placement pipelines, along with continued action to address dining worker needs. Because campus workers lose their positions during the summer term, organizing summer employment opportunities has always been a focus of reform efforts.

“You get served food by these people every day, and eventually you start to find out that they have kids and a life and they have to pay their rent and things like that, and they’re part of our community,” said Tristan Abbott, a Vanderbilt Food Justice officer and protest organizer.

According to protest organizer Shawn Reilly, the dining workers’ supporters celebrated a recent victory. Shortly after announcing their Labor Day protest, negotiations between human resources and the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA), the union to which campus dining workers belong, were reopened outside of the usual biannual schedule.

I just think this push for valuing every piece of our community and recognizing the rights that each piece of our community has is important. Shawn Reilly

“The first step to negotiating some of the demands is to actually have our contracts open,” Reilly said. “Last week we found out that negotiations were opened after we announced this protest actually so it was just super interesting that HR finally agreed to break open the contract again so they can look at how are we treating our dining workers.”

The date of the protest march, Labor Day, was symbolic to protest organizers because it is a day dedicated to the labor movement. The event was both a celebration of the recent progress in union contract negotiations and a demonstration of what the movement believes is left to do.

Vanderbilt students have a long history of fighting for dining worker reforms. Last fall, representatives from Vanderbilt Food Justice met with campus dining representatives to discuss the revival of a bill that had been rejected by a past VSG president due to factual inaccuracies. The bill is currently at a standstill as student organizers are determining the best next steps.

“By our march we’re trying to highlight the fact that administrators… don’t have work on Labor Day, but all other essential employees do have work today,” said Ania Szcesniewski, the Vanderbilt Food Justice president. “But then that’s also the question of, if administrators aren’t essential employees and they get the day off, then why are they paid like they’re kings.”

Reilly pointed out that university staff are often left behind in the campus effort for diversity, which is largely targeted at undergraduate students.

“I just think this push for valuing every piece of our community and recognizing the rights that each piece of our community has is important,” Reilly said. “It’s in our community creed, it’s in our values as a university and with this push towards diversity and inclusion we haven’t really been including some of the most vulnerable parts of our community.”

Watch an interview clip with Tristan Abbott:

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